Speechless…on Shemini Atzeret

What more can be said? After the intense season of the Yamim Nora’im, I am speechless.

But that’s very appropriate because today – Shemini Atzeret – is a Hag that is void of specific mitzvot and minhagim. Aside from the laws of Yom Tov – there is nothing particular that the Torah instructs us to do on Shemini Atzeret. In Eretz Yisrael, where there is only one day of Yom Tov at the conclusion of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret merges with Simhat Torah. So the hakafot, the dancing with the Torah, that we will be engaging in tomorrow evening, takes place on the night and during the day of Shemini Atzeret ; although the Torah does not offer specific mitzvot, the Israel version of Shemini Atzeret is filled with the customs we identify with Simhat Torah.

So I am speechless, because I stand before you to discuss a mitzvah-less and minhag-less holiday!

That said, I would like to share with you an approach that I think helps explain the seeming vacuum left by Shemini Atzeret. It starts with that classic Jewish text, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”!

In chapter seven, Steven Covey (alav Hashalom!) tells the story of writer Arthur Gordon.

In a story called “The Turn of the Tide,” Arthur Gordon describes a time when he found his world stale and flat. His enthusiasm for life waned, and he was getting worse daily.  A medical doctor found nothing physically wrong with him, but said he might be able to help if Gordon could follow his instructions for one day. He was to spend the next day in the place where he’d been happiest as a child. He was not to talk to anyone, nor to read, write, or listen to the radio. The doctor then wrote out four prescriptions and told him to open one at 9a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. 

The next morning, Gordon went to the beach. His first prescription said only this: “Listen carefully.” After some time, Gordon began to hear more and more sounds that weren’t obvious at first. He began to think of lessons he’d learned as a child from the sea: patience, respect for the interdependence of things. He felt a growing peace. The noon prescription read, “Try reaching back.” To what? He thought of the joyful times of his childhood, and felt a growing warmth inside. 

The 3 p.m. message was “Examine your motives.” At first, he was defensive. Of course he wanted success, fame, security – he could justify them all. But then it occurred to him that these motives weren’t good enough, and that fact was making him stagnant. “It makes no difference,” he wrote later, “whether you are a mailman, a hairdresser, a housewife – whatever. As long as you feel you are serving others, you do the job well. When you are concerned only with helping yourself you do it less well ..”  When 6 p.m. came, the final prescription didn’t take long to fill: “Write your worries on the sand.” He knelt and wrote several words with a piece of broken shell; then he turned and walked away. He didn’t look back; he knew the tide would come in.

The message of course, is that once you have reconnected to the attributes of patience and respect, have tuned in to the positive dimensions of your upbringing, recommited yourself to the value of serving others, many of the problems that preoccupy you can be put into perspective. Quality reflection helps a person appreciate the transitory nature of many of our challenges.

With this in mind, I would like to share with you an approach to the lack of mitzvot and minhagim on Shemini Atzeret. Onkelos understands the term “Atzeret” to mean a gathering. Quoted in an article by Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky, the great German-Jewish scholar Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch articulates what constitutes the unique “gathering” of this Hag:

“We accordingly think we are not wrong if we take azteret to designate a day which is not fixed to bring new lessons and new truths for us all to accept and assimilate, but which has the mission to keep us still before the Presence of God – with this the idea of עצירה ממלאכה would certainly apply – to strengthen and solidify the impressions and knowledge we have already gained, so that they remain with us permanently, and do not become lost in the hurly-burly of life….The purpose of azteret is accomplished by our realizing once again all that we have gained by the festival, and by the firm resolution not to allow ourselves to be robbed in the turmoil and struggle and work our lives of what we have won….Shmini Atzeret would come to tell us, once again to summarize and gather to ourselves all the thoughts and messages and resolutions which the moadim of the whole year have brought to us and to resolve to persevere and hold fast to them before God, To impress them so deeply in our hearts that they become an unassailable part of ourselves which cannot become lost in the course of the ordinary run of our yearly life on which we are now entering..”

Put another way, the absence of mitzvot and minhagim is deliberate – in order to provide us a time for reflection as we usher out the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. What struck a chord with each of us? Was it the acceptance of Hashem’s dominion over the world on Rosh Hashana, the cleansing power of Yom Kippur – or the sense of trust in G-d that we absorbed during Sukkot? Some blend of the themes and emotions of the Hagim?

There are no mitzvot or minhagim on Shemni Atzeret, and no rabbi can stand in front of you and tell you what to think or feel on this day – because, by definition, it is an intensely personal day, a time for each of us to gather in and assimilate our thoughts and feelings.

Once we have engaged in this contemplative process, we can then approach Simhat Torah. With a sense of renewal, we can now direct ourselves to finding our place under the broad umbrella of a commitment to Torah and Mitzvot.

The joy of Simhat Torah comes from a sense that:

אחד המרבה
Whether you do a lot
ואחד הממעיט
…or a little
ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים
..as long as you direct your heart towards heaven..

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